most devoted fans

Is There Something Psychologically Unhealthy About Being a Fan?

Psychiatrist with patient
Photo: yellowdog/Corbis

We’ve all heard the harrowing stories of fans whose obsessions went too far: the Selena Gomez stalker, the Twi-hards who have tattooed entire tableaus from the series onto their backs, the Harry Potter enthusiast who stabbed someone for saving a seat at a Marvel panel. But then there are the fans of movies, TV shows, books, or bands whose actions are harmless and self-gratifying, ranging from attending conventions in costume to arguing about the Real Housewives in recap comment boards. These are people who are proud to be engaged with what they love, who are finding their community, and who are developing an interest. It’s all perfectly healthy, right?

And yet, it is, by definition, a bit different from hobbies like cooking or learning an instrument in that fandom is in the service of someone else’s creativity rather than one’s own. And all the time invested in these pop-culture passions: Who among us hasn’t wondered what else we could be getting done with the time spent studying up on or arguing about them? (That is, who among us other than E.L. James, who turned her Twilight fan fiction into the best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey novels.) From a psychiatric perspective, it is this line of thought that makes fandom problematic and to what degree depends on whom you talk to.

Dr. Drew Ramsey, a Columbia professor of psychiatry and co-author of The Happiness Diet, believes that fan engagement tips into the danger area as it moves beyond idle interest. For example, he sees many patients whose marriages have been compromised by a partner’s zeal for NFL Sunday, which demands hours of television-watching each week. “I believe in leisure,” he says, “but we’ve sort of swapped out something that is supposed to be pleasurable and leisurely and replaced it with an intense involvement.” And there are definitely entertainment fans who are as consumed with, say, Lord of the Rings as a New England Patriots fan is with his football team.

This kind of investment is what fandom is all about — whether it’s about if a team will make it to the playoffs or concerning the fate of certain characters. The long history of will-they-or-won’t-they television couples is fraught with audience anxiety over favored relationships: Sam and Diane, Ross and Rachel, Will and Alicia. (There are people out there who are already worked up about Sloane and Don on The Newsroom.) And that’s what a TV show, book, or movie is supposed to do: If it doesn’t make somebody care about its characters, it’s not fulfilling its mission and is, by definition, mediocre. “It’s a form of escapism,” says Dr. Sudeepta Varma, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist with a private practice. “We’re living vicariously through these characters, and the world that’s been created, because we identify with them. And sometimes, these things can serve their purpose, if we’re bored or not feeling stimulated in our day-to-day lives. I wouldn’t pathologize that.”

Ramsey, on the other hand, would: “That’s displacement. Our hopes and fears for our own relationships get displaced onto these fictional characters. I understand the desire to escape, but it concerns me when people spend time worrying about fiction rather than improving their reality.” Boston-based psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, an author and infamous Fox News talking head, takes a characteristically hard line: “Most fandom is distraction. People who are living their lives completely have very little time to be significant fans of anything, but people avoid struggling to find themselves because that journey is painful.” According to this logic, the decision to finally start watching Breaking Bad is, at best, a way to put off conversing with family members and, at worst, a failure to confront everything that is wrong in one’s life.

To an unforgiving extent, this is true. But by placing all the blame on entertainment, it fails to take into account the many other ways people can find to spend one’s time in ways less productive than striving to be a better person (say, sleeping or Gchatting). “It’s much easier to be a consumer, and there is the danger of adapting to a passive lifestyle,” allows Varma, who admits to watching the Real Housewives on a regular basis and finding reality television fascinating in general. But, she adds, one shouldn’t blame fandom for someone not achieving greatness; sometimes digging deep into entertainment provides a rewarding pastime for people who weren’t going to change the world to begin with. “People who are creators or leaders — I kind of feel like there is an innate quality to that,” says Varma, “and you may gravitate toward being a fan if you’re not that person to begin with.”

According to Dr. Ramsey, a onetime Dexter enthusiast who gave away his television to rid himself of the temptation to get hooked on other programs, it’s not the unrealized potential of the fan that makes his or her passion problematic — it’s that their pursuits offer no chance of rewards. “Fandom is reasonably unsatisfying,” he says. “It doesn’t return something specific to the individual.” Wait, but sometimes it does! Is it not exciting when your favorite team has a comeback? Or what about when a show we are addicted to has a revelatory climax, like when, (Breaking Bad spoiler alert) after 53 episodes of Breaking Bad, we saw FBI agent Hank finally realize that his brother-in-law, Walter White, was the drug kingpin he’s been looking for? “There’s a moment that might be exciting, but then that moment passes, and what do you have?” asks Ramsey.

There seems to be a general consensus that, in Ablow’s words, “being an observer is not a very powerful perch” but that, like so many things, it’s okay in moderation. There’s just no consensus on what constitutes moderation. Ablow would green-light only the very rare occasion, saying, “If you’re going to bed upset because your football team lost, you shouldn’t watch games anymore.” Varma would only ask a single patient who spends every Monday watching The Bachelor, “What about creating that for yourself?”

But Varma makes the point that most of us who identify as fans want to hear, which is that there are upsides to our connectivity. “We all have a need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” she says. “There is a degree of escapism and avoidance, but there’s hope and optimism. There is camaraderie. A common shared interest brings people together. To me, that’s a positive thing.”

Is Being a Fan Psychologically Unhealthy?